It's been a while since I was in to the show scene; when I lived in the Midlands I used to work on the stands at Harrogate and Wembley so that I could get in for free, and then when I worked for Argo I only worked on the stand for a couple of shows before I got into more of a non-public role. So, under my own steam and with just about enough change in my pocket to pay the admission fee, I paid my first visit to a show at Epsom.
A short courtesy minibus ride from the railway station and we were at the racecourse. There have been bigger shows in the dim and distant past; however, a packed Wembley or Harrogate with lots of large stands still had the feeling of being in an aircraft hanger or un-air-conditioned cattle market, and it was a surprise just how nice
this place was. The bus drove on to the marble forecourt of the exhibition centre, parking up right next to a full-sized bronze statue of a horse; a quick dash over the expanse of rain-slick marble to the ticket desks in the foyer, up an impressive set of steps under the huge scrolling message welcoming us to the show and I was in amongst the stands. Somehow I managed to miss the large RiscStation stand right there at the top of the stairs and my first port of call was the Spacetech, sorry, Photodesk Ltd. stand, conveniently situated right next to the bar. More of that later, as I'm sure you'd rather I get on with the report on the new kit rather than witter on about graphics packages and cameras right away.
Although downstairs was bustling, there was more to be had up another pair of staircases, an even larger room than downstairs flanked both sides with floor to ceiling glass. Many of the 'photos I took were without flash so that I didn't disturb too many people, especially when they were doing demos, so there's slight blurring of the backgrounds on the biggest images.
Plastered all around were red posters with a funny-looking white computer with blue trim; on closer inspection these were for the MicroDigital Omega
. The what
? A chance meeting with Paul (regular forum poster mentat) who was taking a break from working on the ticket desk confirmed what I had been thinking - I thought MicroDigital had been so quiet for so long that they were ready to go bust, but here they were proclaiming the result of two year's research into a new StrongARM replacement for the Risc PC! A wander over to the Acorn User
stand and there was the news story plus a three-page preview. The poster has the following data:
- 287 MHz StrongARM SA-110
- 600MHz Xscale 80200 optional
- RISC OS 4.03
- 64MB PC133 SD RAM
- ATA 66 Ultra EIDE
- Lightning graphics controller
- New memory controller
- PCI expansion
- USB expansion
- PCI sound card
- PCI modem
- RS232 Interfaces
- 20GB Hard disc
- 52 speed CD ROM
- Floppy Disc drive
- Software bundle
- £999.00 ex vat
Plus at the bottom:
"Order an Omega up to November and we'll fit an 8x8x32 speed CD Writer and supply CD-Burn software worth £225.00 for only £50 extra..."
Woo! Now that's what I'm talking about! At long last there's a machine in sight which brings RISC OS back up to the same spec as a decent PC, and in a similar ballpark to high street PC prices too! The new hardware gets around some of the problems that have stopped RISC OS moving forward, namely the reliance on old hardware and the 26bit mode required in the processors; with a lot of new kit under the bonnet, you get things like not just two but four USB ports; four PCI slots; two EIDE interfaces meaning four fast IDE devices at once; faster memory; and to get around the fact that RISC OS is 26bit, the "old" 287Mhz SA processor is onboard for compatiblity, but you get dual-processor capability so you can add an Xscale (the new Intel second generation StrongARM, which will come in various flavours from 600Mhz to 1Ghz) which will run 32bit software. Oh yeah!
Given that RISC OS 4.50 isn't due out until Summer 2001, and the Omega is due for launch in January, this could mean MicroDigital come out of the shade of RiscStation, Castle et al
and really steal a march on their rivals. AU was claiming the exclusive, but according to Paul Vigay so were Archive. Ah well. Keeping this under their hats for so long it's no wonder everyone's clammering to get all the info thet can out of them.
Obviously the other players are keen to get in on the Xscale act, although the concensus seems to be that it won't happen until RISC OS 4.50 comes out. So long as this is delivered in time, this might not be too much of a lag behind the takeup of the Omega, given that Xscale processors are more rare than gold dust at the moment, and are likely to stay that way for a while at least.
A little eavesdropping on a conversation on the RiscStation
stand turned into a conversation with Mark Gillard, who gave me the lowdown on a few interesting points. At first I was listening to a man who had a SCSI scanner, and wanted to fit it to a current RiscStation; Mark admitted that they'd thought about this, and concluded that for such a low-end (and relatively inexpensive) machine most people would be better off using a parallel port scanner and saving the ISA slot for a network card or something. This didn't help the chap much, who already had the SCSI scanner, so Mark admitted that a third-part card might be on the cards (as it were). More interesting though was that the Evolution - the StrongARM, PCI überRiscStation - was obviously aimed at the more professinal level, and so not only were they thinking of selling a SCSI card themselves, it was possible that SCSI might be onboard, although that's undecided as yet. It should be mentioned that although SCSI's fallen out of popularity a little for desktop machines due to expense of devices, it's still pretty much the standard for serious heavy-duty usage for things like Internet servers, although obviously don't read anything in to that other than it's a more professional standard.
If it hadn't been for the fact that I was desparate for a RISC OS laptop I might not have gone to the show, and of course as is the way of these things it wasn't there. Problems with the design have meant that the release date will be no sooner than Christmas, although whether this remains realistic is open to speculation. Although the motherboard is very much based on current RiscStation boards (just as the A4 was a portable verson of the A5000 board), it sounds like quite a bit of work has gone in to getting the thing to lay completely flat. The main problem it seems is that just one week ago one vital (unspecified) part had it's spec changed by the supplier - the machine has a 5 volt system, and the part was 5 volts, but now the manufacturer has upped and changed it to 3.3 volts, which means a reworking of the interface to the motherboard. Bummer.
I've been privately worried about the price - given the current going rate for PC laptops, with much faster processsors, the RiscStation offer did sound a little steep initially. However, a question about expansion put this into a new light. I was worried about fitting extra drives to it - so that I might back up the main drive, which given that the machine's going to be lugged about would be recommended. Although I have a small home network of old Acorn kit, backing up to a second machine over the built-in network card (admittedly a faster 100bT, not 10bT) might not be an option to most people. Mark said that they were recommending Zip drives (suggesting on-board parallel port) but the hardware would support PCMCIA - not sure if that means it will have it, or just support it - but it would come with all manner of connectors for serial, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and I think he said USB. This means that built in as standard comes connectors that most PC laptops require you to buy either a more expensive model, or some kind of port replicator or docking station, adding to the cost. The onboard network port also means that you don't need to buy an additional card for this or take up a PCMCIA slot using it. Given that I'm using an old 25Mhz ARM3 machine to write this article, and that most PC laptops need to drop their processor speed or use up their battery power in the space of a couple of hours, the RiscStation offering is becoming more attractive all the time.
Apparently the demo machine showed up a little later, and was a hit in the theatre; however, a slight accident later and it was revealed to be a Windows machine with a screenshot of RISC OS being used as a screensaver! One thing that mentat mentioned to me was that he would have prefered a three-button pad, but that the standard two button case was being retained to keep the cost down (using as many off-the-shelf parts as possible). Having used a wireless NetStation keyboard with built in two-button trackball before now, I hope that the function of the two buttons is configurable, as you're usually required to press both buttons together to get the middle button's functionality, which is more important on RISC OS than other OSs. Castle
were staying more tight-lipped about their future plans, as per their policy after people's past expectations had led to a bit of a PR nightmare when things didn't happen exactly as people wanted. However, they did say that obviously they would need to look into producing Xscale machines, and they may or may not produce Xscale upgrades for existing RiscPCs. But they didn't say that, nudge nudge. You could say that given the existing bottlenecks in the RiscPC an upgrade to a 1Ghz processor would be a bit of a waste, but we're talking about the people who produced the Kinetic card which gave us all a much needed boost so let's not diss them before they even start work. One thing they were more happy to talk about was the new PS2 mouse converter
. On the stand they had a prototype, although they were available for sale. I've got a couple of Stuart Tyrrell's boxes to do just that and have enjoyed using wireless wheel mice for a while, but where these are only slightly smaller than the mouse itself, the Castle version looked for all the world like a small piece of pipe (silver on the prototype) more to extend the mouse plug than anything else. Into a pipe the width and maybe two thirds the length of my little finger they'd crammed a socket, a plug, and a chip that sits between mouse and machine to do the conversion. I doubt it does the cool options switching of the STD boxes, but there certainly looks like he's got some competition brewing there.
Maximum cool points to Cerilica with their Nucleus
machine on the Imago stand though. Nicholas van der Walle was telling someone that hey, this was a high end machine which they were charging people £2000 for, so they could afford to do things like this, and then pointing people to the back of the machine instead of the chrome and black stylings of the front and top. It turns out that they'd attached a toolkit to the back - a screwdriver and an alan key - so you'd never be without the necessary equipment to upgrade!
Photodesk Ltd. and other graphics
Chris Hornby's a great bloke, but sometimes he could do with pushing his products a bit more! A few of us have been wondering what the difference is between Photodesk 3.03 (the last version released by Spacetech) and the new Photodesk Millennium
. Perhaps the upgrade price was too low at just twenty quid (from 3.03 to Millennium), but he was telling some people that there wasn't much difference between the old version and the new, which is in fact 3.04 (thus obeying the laws of sequentialism). The press release had only mentioned a few items like layers (which the old version already had) and PNG support, which is a new and welcome addition. After a little pushing however I found that this new CD based version came with all the effects and file format plugins that were previously sold for a tenner a disc (30 quid in all), which is a saving of a tenner if you haven't already got them. It also came with another CD of image processing tutorials, and the manual now comes on the disc (although the old paper-based one is a great example of the genre, I can understand the switch to HTML.
I'd also like to thank Chris for lending me a digital camera; I've been meaning to buy one for ages, and was humming and hawing over whether to buy one there. He offered to lend me one for an hour so that I could take some pictures for the site, but as I mentioned in the preview after playing with it for a while I ended up buying it, there was just no way I could give back something so cool. It was suprising the number of people who saw me with it and saying things like, "which model's that? Oh yes, I bought one of those a few months ago for the school, and ended up taking it on holiday with me...". When digital cameras first appeared I was unimpressed, especially with the crude software that came with them; I was expecting more of the same when Chris asked if I was a programmer and would I like to do some work on it, but in fact on returning home I found it to be excellent; not least because I could just drag the entire contents of the camera staight to disc, the six image formats I could export as in addition to native JPEGs, up to being able to control the camera to the extent where I could grab a preview image every half second or so, or the cool way I fire off the camera, automatically download the image and transfer it to Photodesk, and then remove it from the camera - all with just a single button. Did I mention that it's also remote controlled and you can wire it up to the TV or VCR? You can see now why I wanted to keep it.
One problem with digital cameras is that they mostly use some kind of proprietary storage system, the Olympus model I bought using smartmedia cards - tiny slivers of plastic about the size of an after dinner mint (and a fraction of the thickness), but holding between 2 and 64MB (the standard one I got was 8MB, which held 21 1600x1200 high quality JPEGs, or can do up to 100 800x600 lower quality images). A number of cameras, including Canon, Olympus, Fuji and Nikon makes, use these cards, and although I'm quite happy with the software provided some people have been anxious to have more control over renaming, deleting, and even uploading of files to these cards. Surftec were showing their DigiFlash
card reader, which attaches to the parellel port (which means much faster transfers, about 2MB second from what I remember of Zip drives). The RISC OS software means that the card shows up as an extra drive icon, and you can share it across Access networks. It even has a print-through connector.
I was delighted to note that Warm Silence software have finally made CD-Burn support IDE CD burners, which given the price difference between SCSI hardware and IDE is a major boost. The last CD burner I got my hands on was a rebadged Ricoh CD reader/writer/rewriter/DVD reader for 155 UKP from Novatech, a bargain then and even cheaper now, but it came with absolutely zero software for any platform, and the Easy CD creator software I got for the PC with a previous drive was hopelessly out of date. Hence, fifty quid ex VAT sounds quite tempting, given that it upgrades CDFS to read Joliet format discs (doing away with the need for 30 quid's worth of CDROMFS upgrade), you can write discs by drag-and-drop directly or master to hard disc first via CD emulation, plus audio facilities for ripping audio tracks and putting them back down to make compilations, or mix and match with data and audio.
Cool tech was on display over in one of the corners of the top floor; answering the question Alasdair posed in Acorn User a while back in his "where are they now?" piece, Hugo Fiennes' (ex-Serial Port, Vertical Twist) new company EMPEG
had a great display which consisted mostly of a rather fine car dashboard. Sitting in the middle was a large spectrum analyser, which takes up most of the front of the device itself (being an MP3 player you don't need any slots to insert the media, you just upload to the on-board storage). Later I even saw a scrolling message which was being distorted in an old-skool demo scrolly kind of way by the music. Way cool.
Next door was a large black box, which was demoing the RiscPC based radar system we've heard about in the past. Although in a large
black case, it was basically a bog-standard RiscPC motherboard with a few bits of kit interfaced to it. The demo even appeared to be running live data, but as we were several miles inland it turned out the data was being loaded in realtime from previously captured stuff stored on a Psion 5! There was some interesting stuff about plotting waypoints and markers over the radar image and getting the software to work out safest routes between points A and B, but as they'd just sold the latest version of the software to someone in Scandinavia the week before a lot of the text didn't quite make sense to me! Next door to that
was yet more kit, a cool video editing setup, although the owner had left for lunch when I was doing the rounds.
Unix geeks were not left out either, on the opposite side of the room was both ArmLinux
, offering CDs for a tenner. As I'd forgotten to go to the cash machine that morning I'd spent all my change getting into the place, so although I'd have liked to have partaken of their wares alas I had to go away empty handed. Maybe next time.
R-Comp seemed to have a whole wall of the main room, half for the stand and half for the games arcade, which given the lack of competition was basically just playing all their stuff. I'm a little concerned how they seem to be hoovering up a lot of shareware and freeware stuff to sell commercially - the printing stuff they've announced recently I've been using as PD for ages, and the DialUp software consists largely of freeware favourites too - but so long as it enables them to put on a good show and keep flying the flag I guess I should cut them some slack. A pity the only "new" thing I saw was the updated version of the by now quite old game Spheres of Chaos
, again also available in Shareware. The options you can now have to add to the on-screen effects are quite mad (in a fun way), but it does kind of beg the question "hey you! why don't you stop adding silly embelishments and write me something new?". I noticed elsewhere that there was a small display of 4th Dimension games - still
flogging the same old stuff - but as it was stuck on the end of a couple of stands I'm not sure who it belonged to.
And finally, as an aside, it was nice to see that Castle were using several of the themes we host at http://themes.iconbar.com/
on their main stand, and another stand was showing my Clear theme on a large projection screen. Hey, it made me feel good anyway! Despite the fact that I'd already taken a photograph of the four or five machines to one side being used as a sort of free cyber café, I was so dazzled by the flashing green lights that I didn't actually take in what it was and ended up using their main stand to submit my preview report. Oops! Sorry Castle! It was noticed that the gateway that they were using seemed to have a firewall that was only allowing web traffic through, so someone's attempt to send email from the show didn't quite work out; however, as IconBar updates are done via a web interface they look to all intents and purposes like a simple page fetch. Mwuhuhuhu (etc.)
Well, that's it from me, feel free to add your own impressions of the show using the comments prog below or to the discussion forums.
The larger images are mostly 1600x1200, although a couple have been cropped; the medium sized versions are half the size of the originals, and the small ones a third (best for previews).
Please feel free to use these images in your own projects, although it'd be great if you gave us a picture credit.
| The cyber cafe, which again I walked past without realising what it was.
| EMPEG (closeup)
| EMPEG (stand)
| The Games Arcade next to the R-Comp stand
| Shot of upstairs at Epsom
| Nicholas van der Walle with the Nucleus
| The back of the Nucleus, showing the on-board toolkit!
| Chris Hornby's Photodesk stand, ideally placed to get those thirsty punters walking past!
| You can just about see the silver pipe of the Castle PS2 converter that the green mouse plug is plugged in to.
| Radar system, running on basically a standard RiscPC which just shows what it's capable of in the right hands
| Some quick last-minute repairs on the charity stall
| The RiscStation stand, right up the front steps; how the hell did I manage to walk past that?
| Woo! Someone's using one of my Oregano themes!
| ...And there were more in evidence on Castle's stand!
| Hey look! Is that The Paul Vigay?
| Steve "Acorn User" Turnbull near the start of the show...
| ...and after he's been talking to the punters for a few hours